Brooklyn Heights

Church with German heritage marks bicentennial of ‘Silent Night’

December 27, 2018 By Francesca Norsen Tate, Religion Editor Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Pastor Klaus Dieter Gress narrates the origins of the Christmas carol “Silent Night,” whose original language was German. Eagle Photo by Francesca N. Tate
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On Christmas Eve, people attending services throughout Brooklyn Heights and around the world sang “Silent Night” in candlelit churches. This Christmas carol, beloved around the world, marked its 200th birthday, tracing its roots to a small town in early 19th-century Austria.

This anniversary held special significance for a church in Brooklyn Heights with a strong German heritage. Its membership stretches throughout Brooklyn, Queens and other parts of the NYC metropolitan area.

Pastor Klaus Dieter Gress of Zion German Evangelical Lutheran Church dedicated much of his Christmas Eve sermon to the origins of “Silent Night.” Pastor Gress’ description was so vivid that his congregants could picture themselves in the small Austrian town of Oberndorf.

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Austria had a significant Roman Catholic population, although many of the historical sources omit the denomination of St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, near Salzburg. Its pastor was a Roman Catholic priest named Josef Mohr.

On Christmas Eve 1918, the church organ fell silent. “It is rumored that the church mouse has to be blamed for it. She gnawed at the organ’s bellows,” related Pastor Gress. “Father Joseph sighed. His fingers stretched over the keys and pressed down. Nothing happened. St. Nicholas Church would have no music for Christmas.”

Some sources, however, blame flooding and other causes for the instrument’s failure.

“Father Mohr looked out over the Austrian Alps. Stars shone above in the still and silent night,” Pastor Gress continued. “‘Silent night, holy night,’ came into his mind and all of a sudden he knew the text for a Christmas hymn he would write and perform to create a solemn midnight mass.” (Mohr had written a version of the poem itself two years earlier, in 1916.) “‘Please, compose a melody for it!’ Mohr asked his friend Gruber.”

Gress continued, “That night Father Joseph and Franz Gruber, the organist, stood at the altar of St. Nicholas Church. The priest picked out a few notes on his guitar and their two voices rang out. When the last notes faded into the night, the congregation remained still for a moment and then began to clap their hands. The villagers of Oberndorf loved the song of peace and hope, which is now a song sung all around the world, in more than 300 languages.”

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